Wellness: Alzheimer’s Disease: A most unforgiving disease

MGN Online

Dr. Ralph E. Jones, Special to the Star

The following article is written in commemoration of Alzheimer’s Disease and Brain Awareness Month, which takes place annually in June.

I have had many friends and family affected with this most serious and terrible malady, so it is most befitting that I be concerned with it…I am sure that many of you readers of this column can share in this experience.

Alzheimer’s disease is a disease under the category of Dementia (a general term for a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life). Dementia is not a specific disease, but an overall term that describes a wide range of symptoms. Although Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases, there are many other conditions leading to dementia; vascular dementia, which occurs after a stroke; is the second most common dementia type, but there are many other conditions leading to dementia.

Alzheimer’s disease is a chronic, progressive incurable illness affecting over 5.7 million people in the United States. Contrary to popular belief, Alzheimer’s is not just a disease with elderly individuals, as primary symptoms of the disease may first appear in ones thirties (an estimated 200,000 under age 65 who have younger-onset Alzheimer’s); however, the vast majority of individuals with Alzheimer’s are over the age of 65, and the majority are females.

Alzheimer’s occurs due to damage to brain cells in the hippocampus region of the brain having to do with memory, and in other areas of the cerebral cortex of the brain concerned with thinking and decision making. This damage to the cells occurs because of high levels of proteins that make it difficult for the cells to remain healthy and to communicate with one another, as to why this occurs is still baffling to medical science. Memory loss is often one of the earliest noticeable symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

Now, we have all had memory problems of one sort or another; for example: “Where did I leave my car keys?” “What did I come into this room for?” “The name escapes me right now; it’s on the tip of my tongue!” When thinking about this another quote of Mark Twain comes to mind: “When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it happened or not, but I am getting old, and soon I shall only remember the latter.”

It is only when these symptoms of memory loss interferes with daily living and presents troubling symptoms, that it becomes a clinical problem. It is well documented that the brain regions being affected probably begin to be affected 10-20 years before any visible symptoms appear.

he warning signs that you or a loved one may be experiencing symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease are: having memory loss that disrupts daily life, difficulty in planning or solving problems, difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work or at leisure; confusion with time or place, trouble understanding visual images and special relationships, problems with words in speaking or writing, misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps, decreased or poor judgment, withdrawal from work or social activities, and changes in mood and personality.

Patti Davis, the Daughter of President Ronald Reagan, sums up the symptoms of Alzheimer’s as her father was slowly being taken away by the disease, as written in her book entitled “The long goodbye: memories of my father;” which does much in explaining the symptomology and progression of the disease.

She has written: “Alzheimer’s snips away at the threads, a slow unraveling, a steady retreat; as a witness all you can do is watch, cry, and whisper a soft stream of goodbyes.” With friends who’s loved ones have this dreaded disease, I can attest to the fact that it is most heart wrenching for family and other loved ones to bear witness to the chronicity and progression of the disease.

Diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease usually occurs during the early, mild stage of the disease; usually involving a mental status examination and family interviews. In later stages MRI studies of the brain are indicative of the disease. There are no preventative measures that can be taken for the disease, although living a healthy lifestyle may reduce the risk of developing the disease. Although there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, there are some measures that can be taken to bring some relief to the person suffering from it; some medications helpful in treatment of the disease itself, and medications that are helpful in bringing relief to the secondary symptoms imposed; such as depression, aggression, delusions, sleep disorders, agitation, and hallucinations.

Patient and family education and counseling is an essential ingredient of treatment; most specifically entailing education about the disease, protecting the rights of the individual with the disease and engaging the individual in activities they enjoy doing.

Alzheimer’s disease is of very special interest to my wife and me, as we have close relatives and friends with the disease; My Sister, my wife’s bridesmaid who currently resides in an assisted living center in California, and my best friend’s wife who resides here in Texas. It is most painful to see what their family is going through. We provide emotional support for the family, and also have provided some support to the National Alzheimer’s Association over the years.

If your loved one is having the symptoms previously mentioned, I urge you to contact your family physician. For further information on this most debilitating disease I refer you to the National Alzheimer’s Association; alz.org., and also ask that you donate to this most worthy cause. No one individual, family, or other loved ones should bear this alone.

Individuals suffering from Alzheimer’s disease need unconditional love and support from family and friends; and patience from others in interactions. Please seek help for the loved one and yourselves. Until next time, Stay Healthy my Friends!